I haven’t recounted this incident many times in my life. At least, not in the depth that I plan to provide in the following story.
Joe’s death was a traumatic experience, and so it was rarely recalled, only topically in therapy, or in brief moments of bonding with others whom I wished to build rapport and explain my story.
The death occurred in the seventh grade; I was 13. My mind wasn’t ripe with perspective, and I believe the events surrounding it were repressed in an effort to deny guilt, which I still feel at this very moment at the mention of the word.
After the death, I entered an even more depressed and suicidal state, more detached and more pained than ever, and my efforts to die increased. I was pulled from the confines of private school a month before summer began, and was thrust into public middle school, an experience I savored, but in hindsight, added to the repression of feeling and memory.
I will do my best to meditate on the events as I remember them, and allow myself to feel deeply in an effort to trigger more feelings and more latent memories hiding the past 17 years in the corner of my mind.
>>>My childhood was marked by constant transitions, moving from town to town, state to state, school to school, from public schools to private schools, finding myself living in half renovated homes undergoing continual construction. This brought on a set of entirely unique problems for my development that are best elaborated on at another time.
Throughout my childhood I recall drawing morbid and grotesque images of death, mutilated corpses, dismemberment, impalement, and the like. Dark images conjured from my imagination, usually with the intent to shock and awe. I don’t know what I felt about these images at the time, whether there was any pain associated with their production, or if they sprang to the page out of inspiration and curiosity. Why I obsessed over these images is something I have worked on uncovering during therapy the past year as a means of discovering the origins of the anxiety and depression that led to self mutilation and fantasies of suicide that eventually became very real to me.
My therapist showed me a book detailing the link between troubled children in abusive homes, where parental abuse damaged these children’s ideal of a loving caretaker. The result of a marred image of a perfect love and caretaker was that children internalized this hurt and disappointment, and made themselves the object of the hate and loathing. They externalized by drawing morbid figures of death, or harming animals, or hurting other children.
My father was a provider, a physical caretaker, but his ability to have a genuine emotional relationship with his children was non existent.
This abuse he perpetuated can be retold in another story, but for now, I will simply assert that this abuse left me with a severely damaged sense of self that I am still recovering from as a thirty year old man.
My seventh grade year my parents took me off Ritalin in response to fears that it would impact my physical and psychological development. They abruptly pulled me off after six years of using it to treat whatever attention ailment they believed I possessed.
The result was destabilizing. My attention, along with my impulse control (which was already lacking) and my academic performance began to wane. This reinforced the disappointment and abuse I experienced at home, resulting in a death spiral of depression.
I had several childhood friends my seventh grade year that I bonded with. All troubled in their own way: Mike Wise, Steve Myers, and Joe Wojciechowski.
Mike Wise came from a broken family, his father a corrections officer, his sister four or five years older, his mother unknown to me, and he seemed to be intimate with a women a decade older than he. For a seventh grader, this was both cool, and strange.
Steve Myers came from an abusive home where his mother would regularly beat him, sending him to school with bruises along his body in the shape of broom handles on his back and ring imprints on his forehead, and other purple markings and gashes.
Joe was the youngest of three brothers, and regularly received the brunt of their frustrations, whatever they were. He seemed to stand in their shadow, emulating their coolness by inheriting their clothes and all the cool things older kids participate in. He was shy, and sensitive, and easily embarrassed. His face would turn bright red whenever he was put on the spot, but he seemed to thrive in this self abuse, and put himself in situations where he looked bad and suffered humiliation at his own expense, usually for attention. There were different facets of Joe. There was the gregarious, outspoken, charismatic Joe, with a voice that was assertive, probably due to the confidence gained by being around “wiser” older brothers, and there was also the self doubting Joe, characterized by a cracking adolescent voice that spoke anxiously and timidly, like that of the youngest and smallest of a family. He also had a girlfriend named Joelle Yeager at the time. This was his love. They attended the same youth group I believe. The months leading up to his death I recall a passionate and yet turbulent relationship, nothing atypical for a thirteen year old.
Joe and I developed a deep friendship seventh grade year, regularly commiserating about the angst derived from home life and school. We both took Ritalin and would venture to the nurses office twice a day, morning and lunch, to consume the medication. We’d also conspire to hide it under our tongues where we’d deposit it in the radiator vents lining the school hallways. During the days we didn’t take the medication, we would agree to have a good time, and deliberately indulge in our impulses, lacking restraint at the expense of our teachers, where we would draw attention from students with our tricks and antics or silliness. The teachers would respond with the typical awareness slip. Four awareness slips equaled an detention. Ten detentions equaled a suspension, if my memory serves me correctly, and more than two suspensions lead to expulsion.
Joe and I became the target of the school. They made it a point to separate us from each other, having us sit opposite ends of the classroom, or making sure we didn’t see each other during chapel services. We were regularly called out and given discipline for minor infractions, such as untucked shirts and no belts, pants being too loose (in Joe’s case, since he inherited his clothes from the older brothers), or not meeting school dress code. This only served to compound the awareness slips, the detentions, and exacerbate the punishment and abuse at home, and consequently the self-loathing spiral.
The private Christian school I attended was about forty five minutes away from our house, and we typically carpooled with another family in town, taking turns mornings and afternoons.
Detentions were served immediately after school at 3:15, and lasted an hour or so. They involved writing bible verses over and over again, or using the concordance to write down bible verses relating to whatever virtue we lacked that lead to our discipline, or simply writing a sentence over and over and over again, hundreds of times.
Self-control was the prevailing theme in all my discipline. I have written more essays and more sentences affirming my self control than any other virtue.
When detention concluded, I would walk to the parking lot and wait for my father to pick me up. His work day usually ended much later than 4:15pm, so I would regularly wait alone, in the parking lot, by myself, for an hour or two or longer, sometimes uncertain he’d ever show. When he picked me up, he chastised me with his disappointment, ridiculing me for my behaviors, and the inconvenience I was putting him in. He’d regularly tell me I’d amount to nothing if I kept up this behavior, that I’d be “flipping burgers”. These conversations left a painful impression on me, and further served to reinforce my self hate.
Sometime during the spring I had accumulated a second suspension for throwing an acorn at a girl I had liked. I believe the first suspension resulted from too many detentions. About four weeks before summer began, I was facing a third suspension, which meant expulsion. My father was in China on business at the time, so when the school contacted my mother to inform her they were expelling me, she pleaded with them using everything she had, tears and all, begging them to keep me for one more month, at which point she would enroll me in public school. The school was initially resistant to deviations in procedure, but eventually conceded to a compromise and offered to have the teachers vote on it. If it was unanimous, I would remain until the years end.
Joe and I had been exchanging our discontent and misery throughout the school year. We would regularly inflict self harm in a show of emotional strength and self control, and this turned into something of a competition. We’d regularly cut ourselves with razors, or burn ourselves with lighters, or brand ourselves with objects, or rub our skin so furiously that we’d tear right through it. We’d carve thing into our arms, like curse words such as “FUCK”. I had this word on my left upper outer bicep, and flaunted it proudly. A display of my strength, a cry for attention that said “Look at this obscenity, look at my ability to hurt and not flinch, and wear this ugly pain as a sign of pride.”
Self mutilation evolved into asphyxiation, something we enjoyed quite a bit due to the high achieved from passing out. As a thirteen year old, this was another escape, like the one achieved by the rush of endorphins from slicing deep into flesh.
We would stand against a wall, and the other would hold both their palms together, spaced just enough to avoid the trachea, and press against the neck. We would hold our breath and close our eyes and wait. As we would pass out our body would go limp and we would collapse, with the other person there to guide our descent and prevent serious injury.
This game eventually took on a new form when we began doing it to ourselves, with our own hands. Soon, we began using belts wrapped around our neck to facilitate the asphyxiation and collapse.
During this time I began to explore the idea of suicide. One of my favorite musicians at the time had killed himself a few years earlier (Kurt Cobain), and this fascinated me. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why someone would do something like this until that year, when I was faced with unbearable and unceasing emotional pain that caused my body to ache day after day with no relief.
I recall once in the locker room, with Mike and Steve and Joe all around, musing and philosophizing on the subject of suicide, a taboo topic for christians since suicide usually meant condemnation to hell. This was my only obstacle for justifying the act. I recall getting changed and explaining my ratiocinations to them: “If God really loved us, he’d want us to be happy. He wouldn’t want us to be in this much pain. If he really loved us, he would understand our pain, and if he is a good god, he would forgive us. He would understand. Why would God want us to suffer?”
This and other conversations sowed the seeds of suicide in myself and my friends, making the idea more palatable and less taboo.
I researched suicide and its methods on our home computer with our dial-up 28kps connection. One time I came across across an article of two friends who formed a suicide pact in the pacific Northwest and killed themselves with a gun at a playground. This was it. This was the epic bow out from the world. With the assistance of a friend, I could brave that final threshold and pass into the afterlife and relieve myself from all the pain inflicting me. I printed out the story and showed it to Joe the next day at school. We plotted and devised our own plans, working out the logistics of meeting up (we lived an hour from one another), and acquiring the proper tools of death. The only firearm I had access to was a pellet gun, which wasn’t an effective mechanism of death. Joe didn’t seem to have access to any firearms either. Neither of us could drive. We entertained stealing our parents cars and meeting up, but this posed risky since we could be caught driving and the whole plan would be foiled.
In the end we settled on killing ourselves separately, but at the same time, using our leather braided belts tied to the door handle of our bedroom. We experimented at school, tying belts around the handle, with the belt hanging like a noose from it. We would sit against the door and lift ourselves up and thread our head and neck through the belt loop. We would then sit down, slowly allowing the belt to tighten around our neck, like we did when we played the passing out game. We surmised that once we passed out, the weight of our body would snap our neck, or at least cause our body to go completely limp, further tightening the belt, and eventually kill us.
We practiced and refined the plot for months, but always waited for a time to execute.
Four weeks prior to school ending, that time came.
With the third suspension in effect, and my expulsion on the table, I figured my life was over. My father would return from China and beat me, and my life would be a failure. I wouldn’t get into MIT or CalPoly, and I would be a drop out, a stain on my record I would never recover from.
That Monday (May 10th, 2000 or around there) I recall Joe and I in our last period class. I’m not sure what lead to this, but I recall Joe pulling out a thick handful of awareness and detention slips. Apparently, Joe had been stealing the carbon copies of these from the teachers desk at the end of the day (if I recall correctly), so he never had to return the copy to his parents and have it signed. He had been stashing them in his backpack.
This particular day, after all the students had filed out of the class room, he pulled them out and smiled at me and laughed like he had been getting away with murder, but thank god, because had he turned all those in, his parents would be furious, and probably kill him.
Because he wasn’t submitting them, he wasn’t serving detentions.
This injustice pierced me.
He tossed these slips into the trash by the door as he exited the class room that day. I followed behind him a minute later, but my impulse and jealousy and sense of injustice from all the pain I had been experiencing caused me to reach into the trash can, grab this wad of papers, and hurriedly place it on the teachers desk before scampering out to the parking lot.
The next day at school I had almost forgotten about the incident until Joe was called out of class during the day. When he returned he confided that someone found the slips in the trash can, and that his life was over. He was full of dread and complete hopelessness. He was going to be suspended until further notice.
That same day I had learned that I would be missing the next day due to my suspension, and that the teachers would be voting on whether I would stay in school or be expelled.
We plotted our suicide pact.
The following day, that night, we would kill ourselves. I told him that if I was to get word that I would be staying, that I would call him.
After school that day I we agreed to go through with it, dicussing the details as we walked into the parking lot to get picked up. Looking each other in the eye and giving each other a handshake, there was a mutual understanding of the situation. He smiled and waved over his shoulder walking away where his brother waited with his souped up rice burner and unmuffled exhaust.
The next day I stayed home. I believe I was in my room, probably drawing all day. My mother got a call from the school (or maybe she went to the school and they gave her a letter, which I still have today) and they informed her that all the teachers voted to keep me at school until the end of the year.
I was elated. Saved. Then public school next year.
I called Joe almost immediately upon hearing the news. I remember going into the basement of our old home and using the AT&T/ Bell office phone next to the circuit breakers, where I would talk if I didn’t want anyone eaves dropping on me.
I pulled out a folded piece of paper with all my friends names and home phone numbers listed, and I picked up the phone and called Joe.
His mother picked up.
“Hi. This is Michael. Is Joe there?”
His mother has a distant tone to her voice. “He can’t come to the phone right now” She said, without hesitation.
“I really need to talk to him. Can you please tell him I called.”
“Yea” she said, apathetically, as if she had no intention of letting him know.
She wasn’t fond of our friendship, especially in light of the recent events, and she didn’t want him talking to me. Little did she know the gravity of the situation.
Neither did I, however. The thought of suicide was more an obsession with escaping the pain. The idea of death was foreign to me, completely unknown. The gravity of what that meant or felt like escaped my greatest powers of imagination.
That night I lay in bed with a boom box next to my side, loaded with a cassette tape ready to record the next good song that happened to be playing. This is how mix tapes were made.
The song Last Resort by Papa Roach came on. It was the first time I had ever heard this song, and after 30 seconds I hit record and relished in the lyrics celebrating death as the only option available. I couldn’t wait to share it with Joe the next day.
That morning I woke and went through my regular routine. Put on Y-100, shower, get dressed in my closet, eat breakfast, etc. While I was getting dressed I heard the phone ring from the study area. I recall being curious as to who was calling and went to pick up the phone. My mother heard me and told me to get off the phone. (We lived in a three story home, with the kids bedrooms and the study area on the second floor, the parents bedroom and bathroom and office area and storage area on the third floor, and the kitchen, living room, dining room, great room, foyer, and breakfast nook on the first floor. I returned to my bedroom and when I came out again I remember the mood of the house changed. The energy was gone, and I couldn’t figure out why. My sister was walking up the stairs and tears were streaming down her eyes and I vaguely remember her saying my name in an agonizing way that induced panic in both of us. I thought something happened to my father while ehe was in China.
No one could look me in the eye. And no one wanted to tell me what was going on. I remember pleading “What is going on? What happened? Did someone die? Tell me! But they all just cried and looked away. I was confused.
I was the last one out the door and I ran to the carpool Odessy minivan at the end of our driveway. My sisters were piled in and my mother was talking to the mom or older daughter driving that day through the passenger window.
“You’re not coming to school today” She said.
Everyone in the car became emotional. Tears filled their eyes. They looked at me until I made eye contact to which they casted their eyes away.
“Go back inside and wait for me” my mother said, and I reluctantly and begrudgingly obeyed.
Once inside she sat on the couch and called me over to sit down.
She sat next to me, holding herself together. She grabbed my hand. She could barely get the words out of her mouth. I looked ahead and down, maybe. Not at her.
“Michael” she paused.
“Your best friend died.”
“Steve?” I turned to look at her face.
“No. Joe.” her expression cracked with her voice.
The moment hung in the still air. Reality slowed and seemed to slip away, the periphery of my vision, my consciousness, warped as I tried to comprehend the words. These were new words. And the concept of death was so foreign to me.
“How?” I said.
“He hung himself.”
“What do you mean he’s dead?” My brain tried processing. My mother just held my hand tightly and her emotions burst through her parental exterior in awkward contorted facial expressions and tears.
“You mean he’s gone? Forever? I can’t talk to him?” I still didn’t fully comprehend the situation.
“No Michael. He’s gone forever.”
“You mean, he’s gone. He’s not at school? I won’t be able to see him again? I can’t talk to him ever again?”
My brain slowly began to grasp the permanency of the situation. I remember staring off into space, trying to imagine myself not being able to see the person he is, his mannerisms, hear his voice, his laugh, his presence. The absence and the void it produced punched me in the stomach, but slowly, like a knot forming in my abs and chest that tightened and tightened until I couldn’t catch my breath and tears began to burn and stream.
My exterior melted into a fragmented emotional mess that matched my interior world. My mother hugged me tight and we cried together. Holding each other. Crying.
I’m not sure how long this lasted, but eventually the tears subsided and more questions appeared.
“Why did you say Steve, Michael?”
I explained that we were all suicidal, and that Steve’s mother beat him regularly and that he was the most reckless one that seemed to have a reason. Steve was damaged and beaten so routinely, that it seemed logical that Steve may have died, if not by his mother’s hand.
We continued crying. Then I remembered the tape I made Joe and I brought my mother upstairs and sat her down in the study and retrieved the boom box and played it for her. She cried even more.
She gave me the option to go to school to be with the other kids. I said yes.
When we arrived no one had been told yet, but the school had suspended activity in order to make the announcement. There was a stillness in the air. I came in, escorted by my mother, away from the other children. The kids in the seventh grade class filed together into a larger classroom and all waited anxiously for the announcement.
Then the loudspeaker began its announcement.
I forget the exact nature of what they said, but they prefaced it that we had a tragedy and that there were counselors in every room. Then they announced that Joe had passed away last night.
I was watching the faces in the classroom of Mr. Reybold’s Algebra classroom. Immediately upon hearing those words there were shrieks and wailings that pierced the room and overcame any remaining announcement that followed; the stillness turned into a chaotic wave of movement as people reached and grabbed each other close to hold and cry.
I cried from a distance, with my mother, to myself. I believe Mike and Steve and I were all together, separate from the other kids.
I’m not sure how much longer I stayed at the school, or much else from that day. I’m not sure what I did, or where I went.
My mother asked me if I would like to be transferred to public school for the remainder of the year, and I responded yes without hesitation.